Ramblings on Reactive Attachment Disorder

RAD – three little letters that strike fear into the hearts of adoptive parents. 

Bonding is so important to developing brains that disruptions to normal attachment can create major issues for life. 

When it comes to adoption, I think attachment issues are far more common than officially diagnosed. 

Take this stat from the American Bar Association page on RAD: “While RAD is rare in the general population, it is common in abuse cases. In one study of toddlers in foster care who had been maltreated, 38-40% of the children met the diagnostic criteria for RAD. Many older children who have delayed disclosure of their early abuse also suffer from undiagnosed RAD.”

In Born for Love by the famous Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz, they write about the hormones involved in bonding: “In children whose infancies involved normal parenting, oxytocin rose in response to being held by their mother—but this response wasn’t seen in orphanage children held by their adoptive mothers, even though they were tested approximately three years after adoption.” 

Three years after adoption. Let that sink in. 

I’ve read many books by adoptive parents parenting children with RAD (my favorite of which is Raising a Thief by Paul Podolsky), but I’ve only found one written by an adoptee: Detached: Surviving Reactive Attachment Disorder, A Personal Story by Jessie Hogsett. While he’s not a professional writer, it was so enlightening to hear his perspective. I learned a lot about RAD from him, but it also shed light on the savior complex in adoption—how as a society we decide what’s best for kids and what’s important to them rather than listening to the kids who have been through it. 

His biological mother dealt with poverty and alcohol addiction. They were often homeless. He was also neglected, left alone for long periods at a time as a toddler, and abused by his mom’s boyfriends. In his adoptive home, his new parents gave him a room filled with toys, took him on trips around the world, worked from home to be with him, gave him all the resources and extracurriculars. But was this what he wanted? No. He rejected all of it. What he yearned for was his birth mother and his sister. 

Both of these RAD-related books raise the question of early intervention. What would have happened if these birth mothers had received help for their addictions and intervention to help them with poverty and parenting? The lifelong effects of interruptions in natural bonding and attachment are one more reason family preservation must come first (read “Changing the Adoption Paradigm”). 

If you’re a parent raising a child with RAD or someone who wants to learn more about it, RADvocates is a great resource. 

I believe we need to open our minds and educate ourselves on what’s actually best for children. We need to recognize how important those first few years of life are in brain development and bonding. Wherever possible, we need to prevent RAD before it ever starts. 


Image credit: "Reaching" by JoelMontes is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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